“When something you have written deeply affects another person…” Ten years since Katherine Paterson received the ALMA

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Katherine Paterson, laureate of the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award 2006. Photo: Stefan Tell

This year it´s ten years since US author Katherine Paterson received the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award. When we asked her to describe the meaning and power of art, this is what she replied:

Any writer will understand how miraculous it is when something you have written deeply affects another person. And we are all acutely aware of how much depends on the heart and mind of the reader. That being said, this story begins with a letter I received in the fall of 2004 that had been mailed the previous August. It had no stamp and the return address was an Army Post Office number. Now, I am a peace-loving children’s writer, so most of my mail comes from children, not soldiers. But as I read this letter, I was overwhelmed with awe and gratitude, as any writer would be.

Dear Ms. Paterson,

I apologize for not typing this letter, but I send you greetings from Farah City, Afghanistan where I am deployed with my Army National Guard unit in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. I am, consequently, without access to printers.

Yesterday, we were blessed with the very rare occasion of receiving mail at our remote desert outpost. With my letters was a copy of Bridge to Terabithia. I was unfamiliar with this book but the title sounded interesting and it had clearly won the Newbery, so I gave it a try. And on one of those very rare occasions where I have time between missions and guard duty, I read the entire novel.

I was mesmerized. You wrote an absolutely beautiful novel and I, like Jessie Aarons, fell in love with Leslie Burke. Maybe it was because you made it so easy to see things from Jessie’s perspective. Maybe it was because Leslie reminded me of a girl I once knew. Maybe it was because she was a spark of beauty in a land and a war where beauty is of so little importance.

That night, after finishing Bridge to Terabithia, my squad left our compound for a mission. Yet, even while I drove through a strange foreign city with body armor and a fully loaded M-16 assault rifle, all I could think about was the beauty and richness of your novel.

Before the army yanked me out of the real world for this war, I was a high school English teacher. Before that, I studied English at the University of Iowa. I have, therefore, read many novels. But of all those novels I have awarded only five books with my own personal five-star rating system. Bridge to Terabithia is unquestionably a five-star novel. It amazed me with its beauty.

Thank you, Ms. Paterson, for bringing such joy to this lonely teacher-made-soldier in this long tour in this bleak desert country. I have sent instructions home to my wife, asking her to secure a hardcover copy, and my future students will be highly encouraged to read your brilliant novel.

Once again, thank you for the joy you brought me. Thank you for Leslie Burke.

Sincerely,
Corporal Trent D. Reedy
United States Army

After a couple of years of correspondence, I was able to meet Trent Reedy. He told me that Bridge to Terabithia saved his life. When I asked him what he meant by that, he said how important it was to him to be able to cling to something beautiful when the world about him was so ugly and terrifying. Since that time, many of his fellow soldiers have come back from the war so scarred that they haven’t been able to adjust to civilian life. But he had come to realise how vital art was. He believed that art literally saved his life. Since that time, Trent has become a writer himself. His powerful first book, Words in the Dust, tells in fiction the story of a young Afghan girl he met during his time there. It has been well received and was featured on the national TV programme, The Today Show. More importantly, the book has helped thousands of young Americans to understand the humanity of the Afghan people.

Katherine Paterson received the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award in 2006. More about Katherine Paterson here.

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